You would hope that the passage of fifty years might have cleared the passions that once inflamed the Rosenberg case. The end of the cold war has cooled the ideological battles, and many of the factual questions that once divided the parties seem to have been resolved. Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy; the evidence against Ethel was flimsy; judge and prosecutor were overzealous and broke the law themselves. So now maybe the personal issues at the center of the dramatic case might be examined.
This is the task that Robert Meeropol, the younger of the Rosenbergs’ two sons, has taken on in his earnest memoir, An Execution in the Family, published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the execution. His subject is his parents’ political and psychological legacy, and his efforts to come to terms with it. The writer’s manner and position at once command sympathy and respect. For Meeropol has led a worthy life, now as the head of a foundation, called the Rosenberg Fund for Children, that helps children of activists who have been targeted by the law. A man who loves the company of children and mistrusts the state has found the right job.
It wasn’t easy getting there.
He was 3 and his brother 7 when their parents were jailed in 1950. The Rosenbergs’ extended family shunned the boys, and they spent months in a shelter before landing in the upper Manhattan home of Abel and Anne Meeropol, who were members of the Rosenbergs’ Old Left community. The Meeropols adopted the boys and brought them up in a loving and generous way. As a youth, Robert Meeropol says, he faced two great challenges. One was being identified as a Rosenberg son, something that could destroy his privacy and deeply complicate his life. He deceived even close friends till his mid-20s, when he joined a lawsuit against the author Louis Nizer over Nizer’s use of Rosenberg letters in a book on the case. On June 19, 1973, the twentieth anniversary of their parents’ deaths, Robert and Michael Meeropol identified themselves publicly.
The other challenge was political. All four of his parents were Old Leftists, Abel Meeropol so die-hard he was unfazed by revelations of Stalin’s crimes. “I sprang from that party-line tradition,” Robert writes. Yet he also rebelled against that tradition, with its emphasis on disciplined, peaceful organizing among the working class, gravitating toward the revolutionary spontaneity of the New Left. In the late 1960s he took part in militant actions at the University of Michigan. Abel Meeropol was fearful about the risks Robert was taking. “I’m afraid I’ll never see you again,” he said, and before long the author, by then married and forming a very stable family of his own, came to share his fear. In the end he chose to continue his radical political activities, but in a legal way. “My childhood experience had fostered a political ethic that was at the core of my being…. I needed to be a troublemaker.”
This book, however, is subtitled “One Son’s Journey,” and the deeper quest here is of a psychological and spiritual character. Perhaps inevitably, Robert and Michael Meeropol became heirs to their parents’ effort to establish their innocence. In 1975 the boys published the book We Are Your Sons, combining their own stories with excerpts of their parents’ jailhouse letters, and asserting that the Rosenbergs had been framed because their radical political beliefs had elicited McCarthyite hysteria. For a time, Robert gave public lectures demolishing the government’s evidence point by point.
But by 1988, Meeropol writes, the murmurings of older allies of his parents brought him to understand that his father was guilty of some form of espionage, just not what Julius and Ethel were convicted of. “My new position was uncertain and complicated,” he writes. He stopped giving lectures. “As long as I remained in the background, I would not have to voice my doubts about my parents’ case publicly, and I could develop a life that moved beyond being their son.”
The end of the cold war brought new information. Former Soviet agents said that Julius, an electrical engineer formerly in the Army Signal Corps, was an asset, and the American government released National Security Agency files of decoded Soviet cables showing that Julius had been a spy, using the code name Antenna and providing the Soviets with military secrets.
It would be hard to imagine a more deeply moving story about a son losing his blindness about his parents. Yet An Execution in the Family describes that territory without fully exploring it. The idea of a memoir as a “journey” owes something to various 1990s experiments in freeing unconscious pain, but Meeropol’s writerly training is as a foundation executive, and his descriptions of his inner life often sound programmatic. The childhood nightmare would seem to have cauterized him. “I can’t remember ever crying about their executions as a child…. I never cried about anything,” he says, and his future wife almost abandoned their relationship because of its “emotional poverty.” A reader undergoes similar privations here.
I should have liked the author to have taken greater risks. For instance, he might have revisited Sing Sing, the scene of his parents’ last years and death, to try to uncover his childhood feelings. In The Book of Daniel, E.L. Doctorow’s 1971 novel that is told by the son of the “Isaacsons,” the narrator says, “I suppose you think I can’t do the electrocution,” before a horrifying description of that scene. I never need to read that again, but I would like to know what Meeropol thinks about when he thinks about his parents’ death.
As it is, the only primal screams here are directed at Meeropol’s uncle, David Greenglass, a confessed spy inside Los Alamos, whose testimony that his sister and brother-in-law were co-conspirators helped send them to the chair. Even hearing about Greenglass, Meeropol says, “is like taking a bath in sewage.” He elaborates: “Sometimes religious Jews mourn the ‘death’ of someone who has committed an unforgivable act, going so far as to sit shiva for him. What Greenglass did is unforgivable, and I’ve removed him from my life with similar finality.”
The reader wishes he had overcome those feelings. Elsewhere in this book, in making a persuasive argument against the death penalty, Meeropol says that the rage felt by the victims’ families can be lanced by reconciliation rituals in which killers express remorse. I hope that he is right. But, fifty years later, he is still in too much pain to contemplate reconciliation with the uncle he has condemned to spiritual death (and don’t let anyone tell you Jewish voodoo doesn’t work).
What if he had approached Greenglass, and tested his belief in our “common humanity” by at least attempting to remove the labels of Wretched and Righteous that are worn by Greenglass and himself? In the process he might have reached a deeper understanding of who his parents were.
Julius and Ethel are the missing characters in this book. Such vivid and astonishing characters they were, too! Julius the sliest and ballsiest Jew ever to walk Delancey Street, sending his wife a note to say “Honey we have a license and we should be allowed to set up housekeeping” in the Death House together. Ethel with her thumpingly grandiose literary style and brand loyalty to Commissary cream cheese behind bars. Ethel emerged as sexy and neurotic in Ethel, a 1990 novel by Tema Nason, but here she remains an abstraction, and this speaks to the largest problem in Meeropol’s book, and maybe also in the case as it echoes today.
Yes, the government was perfidious. There were unethical meetings among judges and prosecutors, who were rattled by all sorts of fevers, from 1950s anti-Communism to the assimilationist desire of professional Jews to demonstrate their loyalty by publicly sacrificing two of their radical working-class brethren. The Rosenbergs are the only people in American history who’ve been executed for spying. Others found guilty of similar crimes drew far lighter sentences.
But those are old stories. This year the fiftieth anniversaries of the scaling of Everest and the discovery of the double helix seem far more relevant to our lives than poor Julius and Ethel’s belief in the triumph of the proletariat–even with John Ashcroft running the Justice Department. And yet a very contemporary issue does throb inside this book: Can the Rosenbergs’ son criticize his parents?
The Rosenbergs did what most parents do: They lied to their kids about who they were. Had they been permitted to live to a mature age, maybe they would have come clean. As it was, their martyrdom has functioned as a kind of psychic amber for their children’s thinking. However heroic they were to refuse to cooperate with the Feds and thereby accept their fate, however much that bravery resonates in their sons’ political choices, the Rosenberg children have struggled with those lies for a great part of their lives.
It is stunning to consider that Meeropol was 28 when he wrote rather edgily, along with his brother, in the book We Are Your Sons: “Recent investigations have permitted us to conclude that our parents probably were members of the American Communist Party.”
Did their parents owe them greater sincerity about such a basic question? Even sealed sincerity? Even the convict Abel Magwitch managed to be more honest with his heir, Pip, in Great Expectations.
Robert Meeropol circles the matter restlessly. At a gathering he organizes of the children of political prisoners, a child asks Meeropol why he is not angrier. He thinks she means angrier at the state, and explains that he has gotten over his murderous feelings toward the people who killed his parents.
Then he realizes, “She meant, ‘Why wasn’t I angry with my parents for the choices they had made?'”
But he quickly rationalizes the issue:
“I am proud of my parents even if they may not have been unequivocally innocent. They acted with integrity, courage, and in furtherance of righteous ideals.”
That’s not really an answer, it’s political speech. At some level, Robert Meeropol still seems to retain a 6-year-old’s idealization of his parents.
Who were these people? What combination of ideology and fortitude made the spy and his helpmate maintain their silence? By some abridgment of that silence, could the couple have saved Ethel’s life?
Meeropol doesn’t ask that question (and condemns Ethel’s mother, Tessie, for venturing such issues in a famous visit to Ethel). He has declined one of the gifts of the journeying age: We’re permitted to rage at our parents and thereby come to terms with the emotional damage they created in our lives. The sensitive are compelled to do so, to work their way through to fuller expression.
Of course, Robert Meeropol didn’t actually decline that gift; the state denied it to him. And in this sense, the son’s long struggles add weight to the lesson offered long ago by the bigger controversies of the case: The death penalty only sows confusion.